MR. BILL Short takes his pillaging seriously.
The Vikings, as caricatures, are bulging, golden-locked brutes wielding two-handed axes, who chug from human skulls as they cruise the seas on a mission of mayhem. During their sold-out "Rape and Pillage" tour that launched in AD 793 and lasted two rockin' centuries, Vikings are said to have ransacked their way into chunks of Europe, Africa, and North America — seeking glory in battle, so they could live on after death in Valhalla.
Worcester, Massachusetts, is more like it.
Today, in 2011, a stout warrior stands before his loyal army of juiced-up adolescents, their parents, and one colorless twentysomething couple on hiatus from online fantasyland. All brandishweapons that will crumble if used with force, but they stand firm nonetheless, prepared for battle . . . awaiting instruction from the one they call Bill.
"Please don't crash into the walls or pillars," gray-scraggly-beard Bill battle-cries. "You could get hurt."
His words are wasted on this troop of budding barbarians. They didn't come to the Higgins Armory Museum to observe safety rules. They came to fight. And fight they will!
>>PHOTOS: Viking Sword & Shield Practice at the Higgins Armory Museum<<
Of course, raping and pillaging won't be on the agenda during the weekly, four-day Viking Sword and Shield Introductory course, presented by Viking re-enactment group Hurstwic, through March 5. Viking Warfare is serious business, you see, and that butcherly shit only flies in video games and in the dreams of geeks. Safety and combat fundamentals are the main focus of Bill's Viking Warfare experience, and he's dead serious about both. His mention of blood brings a few anticipatory snarls to the lips of attendees — mostly the pale nerd couple — but those vanish soon enough when it is revealed that "BLOOD" is just an easy way to remember some important Viking combat basics: Balance, Line of Attack, "OO" (eye contact, get it?), and Distance.
Regrettably, in real life, medieval Europe's most fearsome warriors were farmers for the majority of the year. The pillaging part was like their spring break. "Vikings didn't consider themselves barbaric," states Bill, who when not teaching Viking combat techniques goes by the name William R. Short. "They had a rich and interesting culture, with many significant accomplishments. The Viking raids, which captivate popular imagination, involved only a tiny portion of the Viking population. . . . Some modern scholars now wonder if the descriptions of Viking raids written by the victims of the raids are exaggerated."
Exaggerated or not, Vikinghood takes a lifetime to master. "It's not possible in an eight-hour workshop to teach a student how to fight like a Viking," says Dr. Short. "We teach some fundamentals of safety, of body mechanics, and of weapons use. We hope this gives students a taste of Viking combat and makes them hungry for more, so they will come back and join our regular weekly practices."
Rickety swords collide against shields, as today's battle finally begins. A one-handed axe slices at the ankle of an opponent. Another's narrowly misses an unguarded neck. The ashen combatants lock weapons, and thrust their bodies back, only to strike once again. Then they giggle. The mêlée is now over.
Scott Fayner can be reached at email@example.com.
PHOTOS: Viking Sword & Shield Practice at the Higgins Armory Museum